Directly translated, ‘bitterballen’ means ‘bitter balls’. There are so many jokes I could make here, but I’ll refrain as it’s not in my nature to take the low-hanging fruit (oh dear, and I tried so hard). Does this description sound appetising? Well, I’ll let you decide.
Contrary to what the name might suggest, Bitterballen aren’t bitter at all. According to my Dutch South African friend Will, the name originally comes from the fact that they might be eaten as an accompaniment to the (sometimes-bitter) Dutch spirit, Jenever.¹ They are, in fact, breaded and deep fried little balls of warm, crispy yummyness and are extremely moreish indeed.
The filling consists of cheese, bechamel sauce and a meat ragu of some sort (although I’m sure they are slightly potato-ey too), all contained within a crisp, breaded outer coating. The recipes I’ve looked up online mention that you can use leftover meat to form the ragu, or even soup meat / stock meat and the more posh the bitterbal, the more meat it will contain (or so I’m told). I am planning to try and make them myself soon, although I’m a little worried about learning to make them at home as I can’t imagine they’re very healthy.
While on my trip to Holland last month, I took every opportunity I had to eat them. Much like their big brother, kroketten (croquettes), they are ubiquitous in Dutch bars and restaurants. They are traditionally served with a bowl of mustard, and make a great sharing snack. They are especially suited to being consumed with beer, in fact nothing I’ve ever eaten short of biltong can even come close to how well they complement my favourite beverage.
The picture above was taken of a bowl of bitterballen I shared with Will upon one of the pleins (squares) in the Hague, in the late afternoon. I washed mine down with a Palm Royale, while Will had a Steenbrugge Blond. Rock, paper, scissors had to decide the fate of the last bitterbal! (I’m only kidding. Will, the top bloke that he is, insisted I have it)
1. (Jenever (yuh-NAY-ver) is a type of gin, ie a spirit distilled from a mash of a mixture of grains and then infused with a selection of spices, much like gin, although it can also be wooded, like whiskey, but I digress)